Don’t Teach through Shame: Islamic Parenting Principles
1. Shame before the people vs. accountability before God:
Islam elevated humans from the worship of powerless creations to the worship of The All-Powerful Creator.
Many of our problems as individuals and communities stem from the fact that we hold ourselves to account in front of people instead of in front of God. We sometimes fail to fulfil our religious and moral duties because we fear other human beings looking down upon us. Or we motivate ourselves to do the right, honourable thing for the benefit of others, while pushing accountability to God to the furthest parts of our mind.
But children should be taught to do things to win the favour and pleasure of God, and to avoid the things that would displease God – as opposed to doing things to win the favour of people, and avoiding things that would bring “shame” on them and displeasure from their peers or community.
A part of Luqman’s advice to his son in the Quran is as follows: “O my son, indeed if wrong should be the weight of a mustard seed and should be within a rock or [anywhere] in the heavens or in the earth, Allah will bring it forth. Indeed, Allah is Subtle and Acquainted” (31: 16).
If there is something evil you have kept within yourself, even if it is hidden far away from the view of any other soul, Allah (swt) is well acquainted with it, and will easily bring it forward for you to see on the Day of Judgment.
If a child is taught to be ashamed of her actions in front of people (“what will the neighbours think of you?”), she will simply hide and commit her sins in private, feeling that she has somehow beaten the system by not bringing “shame” on herself and her family. If she knows that it is Allah (swt) that she should be conscious of, she will understand that every sin will be brought forth regardless of how secretly it is done. She will still commit sins, as we all do, but she will understand to whom she is truly accountable.
Every time you are about to say “what will so-and-so think of you if he/she sees you speaking/dressing/acting a certain way?” think about the thought-process you are embedding in your child’s mind. A Muslim’s motivation to conduct herself according to the commandments of Allah (swt) should be to attain His pleasure, and to build a sense of dignity and respect for herself.
2. Shame as a teaching tool:
I remember being in middle school and attending a Quran class where we would read and memorize Quran. At one point during one of the classes, my teacher became frustrated with his students’ lack of progress in reading and memorization. In order to prove his point – which was that we were all very bad students – he made a few of us open the Quran to a random chapter and start reading.
I was one of those students. As I attempted to read from a random section of the Quran, I stumbled and I struggled with the letters, stuttering the whole way through. His response, I will never forget – “you should be ashamed of yourself, you can’t read the Quran properly and you’re Arab! The non-Arabs read better than you.”
Shame is what I felt that day and many days and years that followed; shame that I wasn’t as good as the others despite my native tongue being Arabic. For many years I avoided the parts of the Quran that made me feel ashamed and uncomfortable, only reading or reciting the portions that I already knew by heart, or simply reading the English translation. I was too ashamed to try. Only during my early university years did I feel the motivation to relearn and improve my recitation. But up until this day, for the most part I avoid reciting Quran in the presence of anyone except my young daughter.
The shame has followed me. Even though I have become a better and more fluent reciter with practice and individual effort, Alhamdulillah, I still harbor the feelings of being ashamed to recite in front of anyone – as though I will be judged and scrutinized for every mistake. What happened in that classroom nearly 20 years ago has followed me. A man who attempted to teach his students through comparing them to one another, and shaming them into obedience said just one short string of words to me, and yet they have stayed with me. They have burrowed themselves so deeply into my psyche that as an adult, I must constantly struggle against them and challenge my own thought-process to rid myself of that negativity that has made a home within me. If one sentence could affect me so deeply, I wonder how many children are affected by how parents and educators shame them for not being better students, more well-behaved, more in line with what is expected of them, etc.
Instead of teaching children that they should be ashamed of themselves for doing something incorrectly, we should encourage them gently and consistently, filling their lives with the brightness of hope and potential.
A child is a fragile, imaginative and gentle being. And you have a choice. You can foster their natural curiousity and optimism, you can motivate them by helping them understand their accountability before God, and you can enrich their world-view by building up their self-esteem and their holistic understanding of themselves and their world.
Or you can destroy it all through constant shaming.